A New Novel Captures Life in Los Angeles and Beirut

This Angelic Land, a novel by Aris Janigian, West of West Books, 2012

21 Nov., 2012 | Levantine Review | Reviewed By Jordan Elgrably

Do you remember the early ‘90s in Los Angeles? Between the riots, the Northridge earthquake, OJ Simpson and the Malibu mudslides, it became an apocalyptic landscape, at once horrific, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Not unlike Beirut during its civil war, 1975-1990.

 A novel by Aris Janigian.

A novel by Aris Janigian.

This Angelic Land is a novel set in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King riots—the largest, most destructive civil uprising in American history. Adam Derderian, the central protagonist, is a 27-year-old Lebanese Armenian bar owner. The narrative shifts back and forth from his perspective to that of his brother, a New York-based artist five years his senior. The backdrop is their youth during the Lebanese civil war in Beirut—the longest civil war in modern history.

The novel frames the riots "as a historically conditioned collision of dispossessed tribes on a patch of contested ground," thus conjuring an intriguing comparison between Los Angeles and Beirut, two cities not often juxtaposed, though perhaps they should be in view of the fact that Beirut for the longest time was a cosmopolitan, multicultural, Levantine environment, home to seventeen different religious communities and countless ethnic neighborhoods. (Thanks to the machinations of two L.A. councilmen, Dennis Zine and Eric Garcetti, today Los Angeles and Beirut are sister cities.)

Rodney King died this year, drowning in his swimming pool under circumstances that remain murky, yet the beginning of his story (and ours) these twenty years later comes into stark relief: "In black and white, the monochrome color of the plainest of dreams, several police, batons cocked, surrounded a man prone on the ground with his head vaguely raised. Then the man rose, and a policeman struck him, and the man went down, and then rose again and the policeman struck him again, and again...Suddenly, the man, like some cornered and wounded buffalo, lunged, and at the vile sight of his unlikely power they lunged back, his buffalo-sized body absorbing blow after baton blow."

Fortunately for the reader, Aris Janigian writes with the muscular prose of an old-school fiction junkie, and so between the action and the characters' reflections, this novel is a page-turner. Raised before the advent of our screen culture (throughly dominated today by smart phones and texting), Janigian is a longtime L.A. resident and former humanities professor at SCI-Arc whose two previous novels are Bloodvine and Riverbig. He also co-authored Something for Nothing, a book on digital design, with April Greiman.

Janigian packs the description of riots in L.A. and life in Beirut with pithy observations and gritty realism. He also offers up two particularly memorable characters in "the Kurd" and "the Wizard," the latter a gay aging college professor and reclusive intellectual who befriends Adam during one of the darkest periods of his young life. The Kurd, meanwhile, is sui generis, offering some of the most curmudgeonly moments in the story. Though he is a Muslim from northern Iraq, the Kurd comes off as a wry critic of Islam:

 Novelist Aris Janigian (Photo: Lisa Persky)

Novelist Aris Janigian (Photo: Lisa Persky)

"I tell you, this country and its hypocrisy is reminding me more and more of Islam," said the Kurd. "Where everything is paved over with religion and morality you will find in the tiniest cracks the most extreme hypocrisy and decadence. Look at these shahs and princes and whatever, these wicked little Muslim god-trembling playboys from Dubai and The Emirates and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all these disgusting oil slicks; they buy girls from around the world and do to them things the American Cup of Joe can't even imagine. I tell you, America is turning this way, too."

Lest one suspect the author of a little bit of Islamophobia, he has the Kurd voice criticism of the other People of the Book as well:

"Look at the Jews, a people who never looked to anyone for a shekel, the way they have become crybabies. Every third millionaire is a Jew and half the nations on earth are shoving billions to cover their loss and he acts like some poor orphan still stuck in the ghetto, whining and pounding fists and jumping up and down, making the world believe that behind every corner a giant waits to stomp him to death when in fact there is nothing more than a neurotic little midget..."

If the Kurd appears now and then for some comic relief, the Wizard seems to embody the author's attempt to engage in psychological introspection about his characters, and perhaps himself.

Make no mistake, This Angelic Land (the title is taken from a poem by William Blake) is an all-American novel, yet it bares its Middle Eastern soul. Its characters may have left Beirut during the civil war to emigrate to America, but their roots are firmly planted in the Levant. "Back in New York," the brother of his protagonist (Janigian's alter ego?), reflects, "the friends I'd collected, a kind of second family, understood what I was feeling all too well: a Palestinian poet, a Persian museum curator, an Iraqi composer, a Syrian stand-up comedian, and others, all of us exiles from historically rich cultures that were in tatters. We would meet three nights a week for kebobs, and hummus, and taboule, pounding our fists in outrage at the latest caricature of the Middle East. Every week we watched the cradle of civilization wheeled into the psych-ward. They showed our wars, internal strife, corrupt leaders and terrorists and jihadists and self-immolating pilgrims, but they never once let it be known that our birthplace was also the birthplace of agriculture, writing, and the fucking wheel!"

What makes this novel unique, finally, is the way in which it almost organically spins east and west together, interweaving Middle Eastern and American characters and identities as if they are inextricably part of one another's past, present, future. Says the Kurd:

"I loved to watch this Star Trek when I first came to America: Kirk and Scotty and Zulu and Chkov and Orooroo and McCoy, zipping to galaxies in the blink of an eye, light speed warp speed, I don't know what speed, reading minds and healing with a wand, but with their simple humanity shining bright.

"For me, the starship Enterprise was like a giant lantern these brave men and women carried through the darkest of dark ignorance galaxies. The essence of America, what the future was supposed to bring, but with each step forward in technology our simply humanity has taken ten steps back..."

Ultimately This Angelic Land is about the tragedies of the macrocosm contrasted with a personal tragedy in the microcosm that was at least as likely to have occurred in Beirut as in Los Angeles. Readers are left wishing they could encounter Janigian's cast of characters in his protagonist's bar and continue the conversation.